Chicago shopping strips face post-COVID retail reality

Brahm Buck

Online brands occupied only 1.3 percent of space on Damen last year, as the once-hip corridor’s troubles worsened during the pandemic. The stretch between Willow Street and North Avenue saw vacancy rates rise to 29.3 percent in 2020 from 22.9 percent in 2019, according to Stone. That’s double the sub-10 […]

Online brands occupied only 1.3 percent of space on Damen last year, as the once-hip corridor’s troubles worsened during the pandemic. The stretch between Willow Street and North Avenue saw vacancy rates rise to 29.3 percent in 2020 from 22.9 percent in 2019, according to Stone. That’s double the sub-10 percent rates on Damen between 2013 and 2016. Soft-goods retailers, which were already leaving the strip before the pandemic, continued their outward march last year as five brands left.

“Damen, it has lost its way a little bit,” Winter says. “In the early days, when Damen first emerged as the go-to street, it was a lot of gritty local brands that aligned with the ethos of the neighborhood. Over time, those have been filtered out.”

But observers point to signs of recovery on Damen as new businesses take the place of traditional retailers. Primary care practice One Medical Group replaced Nike Running, and facial bar Face Foundrie recently signed a lease.

Warby Parker, an eyeglass brand that started online, is also set to open on Damen this summer. Most of the company’s customers shop both in-store and online, says Sandy Gilsenan, senior vice president of retail. Chicago’s been a strong market across all channels—Warby has five other locations here, including on Southport and Armitage—and customers have been asking about a location on Damen, she says.

The story is similar with Chicago-based Foxtrot, which delivers wine, beer and snacks. The brand launched online in 2014 and opened its first brick-and-mortar outpost in 2016. Foxtrot looks at retail as a way of connecting with customers, and it uses its locations as shipping hubs, says Carla Dunham, chief merchandising and marketing officer. Foxtrot is planning to open a location on Damen at North Avenue this month. Experts say any business that was deemed “essential” during pandemic lockdowns is a good get for a retail strip.

Such moves could attract more digital-first retailers to Damen, says Nicole Cardot, vice president at Baum Realty Group: “You do need a couple of these pied pipers to come to the market, and more will follow.”

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